Saturday, August 24, 2013

Learning Environment - The Graphic Nature Of Animation

Source: The Forest
Even though we don't teach science, we find ourselves returning again and again to motion graphics that tell stories about the natural world. Maybe it's because our students' curiosity unfailingly becomes piqued by issues of earth fairness.

Children are the first to recycle and the first to insist on preserving the environment. They feel close to the outdoors, the grass, and the innocence of animals. They haven't yet been converted to the germaphobic paranoia of Purell. For kids, taking care of the earth is not a progressive versus conservative debate. It's a natural reaction to seeing litter in the garden or oil on the pond.

We've collected below a few of the best educational videos about world studies and environmental science. These infographics attest to the power of animation and computer models, as well as the need for coding and design training in our schools. More than anything, they speak to the effectiveness of visual communication over aural or literal.

Earth science courses could obviously make great hay of these clips. But any homeroom or social studies class could show them as Monday morning waker-uppers. They highlight urgent current events and speak to the role of the United States in the global community.

These films also reinforce the tools of graphicacy. They combine statistical data with arresting visual facts. They employ geography, too, in their representations of oceans, continents, and countries.

"The Forest," by Sasha Milic, reveals the impact of deforestation in Indonesia. The clip is stunning in its beauty and its narrative quality. It's a captivating feat of animation and storytelling. On the surface, it highlights a critical issue in a specific country, but more deeply, it offers an invitation to use eye-catching motion graphics in sharing revelations about science and the environment.

The Forest from Sasha Milic on Vimeo.

If teachers want students to create their own animated movies, we like the Easy Studio iPad app for producing quick, cute videos. It's not free, but it offers a host of features and shapes to generate surprisingly fluid clips. Check out this video for a preview of its functions.

If you're skeptical about the nonverbal communication power of graphics, check out the Water Saving Campaign clip posted on YouTube and Video Infographics. The narration is entirely in Arabic, but a viewer of any language can easily understand its message.

Take a look at these other masterful animations about the environment, all available from YouTube, Vimeo, or Video Infographics. They are as much works of art as works of science:

Ending Overfishing

Ending Overfishing from OCEAN2012 on Vimeo.

Bill McKibben's Thought Bubble: The Fight Of Our Time

Bill McKibben's Thought Bubble: The Fight of Our Time from Thought Café on Vimeo.

Let's Talk About Soil

Let's Talk About Soil - English from IASS Vimeo Channel on Vimeo.

Monday, August 19, 2013

5 Things Learners Expect From Their Educators

(This is Part Two in a two-part series about the expectations of learning relationships. Please check our previous post in Part One: "5 Things Students Expect From Their Teachers.")

More and more in recent years, we've started referring to the kids in our classes as "learners" rather than "students." It began unintentionally but became more and more frequent. We gradually realized that the relationship between learner and educator is not always the same as between student and teacher. As we explored earlier in the "5 Things Students Expect From Their Teachers," we are shaping our goals for new school year, and we're trying to consider an even more nuanced connection between any learner and his or her guide.

A learner is someone who seeks knowledge, who solicits professional development, who values links from a Twitter PLN, or who watches YouTube videos to hone a skill. Employees and entrepreneurs, welders and poets all further themselves by seeking insights from a trusted specialist. Any interaction that results in greater understanding or proficiency forges a learner/educator bond.

The word "learner" suggests an open-mindedness and a self-initiation. The word "student," however, implies a hierarchy. It defines a status, where one is the instructor and the other is the pupil. This difference is akin to actively enrolling in a class versus being at the mercy of a class. It is the difference between training and tutelage, between aficionado and authority.

We’ve all experienced the letdown of learning, whether at disappointing conferences or half-hearted meetings. As both educators and life-long learners, therefore, we want to make every effort to cultivate scholarship by aligning realistic expectations.

What do learners expect from their educators?


Any learner who willingly admits that they do not know something is relying on the expertise of the person at the podium or the webcam. A genuine educator needs a reflexive, virtuoso mastery of the content, so they can then focus on the complicated business of information delivery. Their prowess should be evident and even taken for granted, so the learners can feel safe. Novices can know they won't be led astray or put to the mercy of someone bluffing through sessions in exchange for a paycheck.

Clearly Delineated Goals

To march hand-in-hand with a coach means that there should be targeted, mutually agreed upon goals. Physical therapists and personal trainers know this, but sometimes traditional classrooms or webinars avoid this crisp delineation in favor of generalized discussion. Jointly designed benchmarks and precise assessments can ensure that every moment matters. For both adult learners and middle schoolers, a specific end is critical to seeing a process through with motivation.


Hesitation and insecurity are natural byproducts of learning. Coming to grips with a difficult skill often requires asking for help. In this confession, the apprentice hopes for a mentor's empathy. Mentorship means partnership. A mentor's role is one part confidante and another part older sibling. It involves the sharing of wisdom and the patience of listening. Even in a crowded classroom, a teacher can try to remember this counseling, advising mindset that lets every learner feel heard.


Feedback is perhaps the most difficult thing to give and, therefore, the rarest dynamic in learning. Authentic feedback takes time. It requires a bias-free, assumption-free language to offer constructive advice. Knee-jerk criticism and empty praise are not feedback. In fact, they do more harm than good. Feedback is one-to-one, honest, actionable input about what went well, what didn't, and what steps can be taken to go forward.

Deftness With Necessary Tools

A valued educator needs a fluency with the most apt resources for his or her field. Even a talented professional will draw skepticism if he can't nimbly negotiate the tools of his trade. A chef with a sophisticated palate will still be circumspect if she can't effectively wield her knives. An architect with a revolutionary design will still invite worry if he couldn't safely construct his home. This agility refers both to the latest instruments and the time-honored implements. We can't force children to use typewriters just because we did when we were their age.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

5 Things Students Expect From Their Teachers

(This is Part One in a two-part series about the expectations of learning relationships. Please check out Part Two: "5 Things Learners Expect From Their Educators.")

As the summer is winding down, we’ve begun mapping out the first few weeks of classes in September and also sketching out our goals for the new school year. This planning has inspired us to reflect on our personal aspirations as professionals and life-long learners. It occurs to us to ask if there’s a difference between a “student” and a “learner,” between a “teacher” and an “educator.”

Teachers want their students to be responsible and curious. They expect their students to follow class rules and do their homework. But what about the reverse? What do students want from their teachers?

If we gave students a choice about which classes to attend each day, would they choose our subject? Would they view our pedagogical approach as worthwhile and interesting? A teacher’s job is not to be an entertainer, obviously. Gail Godwin’s quote, that “Teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater,” holds true only on a certain level. But the role of the teacher is undoubtedly to engage each child and inspire interest.

The partnership between student and teacher relies on expectations. When these needs are met, they create decades of learning and admiration. When unmet, however, they foment years of delay and resentment.

What do students expect from their teachers?

1. Moments Of Wonder

Students yearn to feel inspired by what they are learning. They want to know that their time in our classroom is worthwhile. Instances of surprise and enlightenment, even if brief, can make all the different in motivating children to explore and delve deeply. One "ah ha" moment is worth one hundred perfect test scores. Arousing astonishment and eliciting revelation are the hallmarks of a talented teacher. We want to give our students an intriguing tidbit to fill the conversation void when parents ask at the dinner table, "So, what did you learn at school today....?"

2. An Understanding Of Their World

Students, especially middle schoolers, will always look at their teachers with a charitable disdain for their patently uncool status. Adults, in their minds, have no idea what it's like to be a child today, and they couldn't possibly listen to the right music or wear the right clothes. Still, a teacher has a duty to figure out how to convey an understanding and an appreciation for children's worlds. This means being able to navigate pop culture and especially being deft with technology. Essentially, it means not alienating young eyes by being deliberately out of touch with what is important to them.

3. Mutual Trust

The most common complaint from students of any age is, "That's not fair!" The students are right. Too much homework and too difficult tests are not fair. Double standards with class rules and draconian punishments for misdemeanors are not fair. Fairness equates to trust. Trust means clear expectations. And sticking to these expectations is the best way to let students know that, no matter how hard the test is, they are well prepared and validated along the way. If students don't trust that we as teachers are going to keep our word, treat them with decency, and give them the benefit of the doubt, then they will tune out everything else we try to communicate.

4. A Bit Of Humor

The most critical element in creating a successful learning community is the mood of the class. What is the tone of the instructor's language? What is the tenor of the student-teacher relationship? Laughter is a key to keeping this mood light and productive. Even the toughest of teachers wins points from her students if she can crack an unexpected joke. Witty banter and a dose of silliness go a long way toward keeping children engaged. They make the minutes tick by with less tedium, and hopefully maybe even some anticipation.

5. A Lively Environment

The environment of the class is a close cousin to the mood. This atmosphere refers to both the physical space and the personality of the teacher. Is the room decorated in a visually stimulating style, with enriching posters and relevant student work? Is the layout lively and pleasing, and the design kid-friendly and complementary? Furthermore, is the temperament of the teacher upbeat and joyful, with a stimulating sense of optimism about the journey the child and the adult are about to take together?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Entrepreneurship And Schools

Source: Grasshopper
The recent discussion posted to the International Society For Technology In Education’s LinkedIn group via the Fishtree Blog asks the question, “Should entrepreneurship be taught at school?” Our answer is a resounding YES! It also reminds us of an excellent motion graphic called Entrepreneurs Can Change the World by the Grasshopper group. We’ve used it to kick off our interdisciplinary, fifth-grade entrepreneur project for the past three years with much success.

Ironically, the video starts off with “Remember when you were a kid…and you thought you could do anything.” If we want to tap the creative potential of our kids, we should provide more opportunities for them in school to develop an entrepreneurial spirit. We see no reason why it should wait. They are kids, and we want them to think they can do anything.
Source: Grasshopper

We’ve talked to our students about the many successful startups of products they know that began with kids in their teens, and some even earlier. Others such as the founders of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook were only in their early 20s when they developed their businesses.

The argument that you can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur misses the point; opening opportunities to learn about the entrepreneurial process is the key. When we engage kids with the possibilities that their ideas could matter, or make a difference, we’ve already started planting the seeds to think differently and to discover. It’s not about success or failure, but using ingenuity to develop an idea. We should be tapping into this as educators.

If schools are looking to promote creativity and innovation, we need to encourage this from an early age.  Let's give kids more time to think things through with a critical eye and more flexibility to accomplish it. This can be achieved by incorporating entrepreneurship in age-appropriate ways to develop an understanding about real problem-solving. It also goes to the core of using design thinking and project-based learning in the classroom.

Source: Grasshopper
As educators, we want to open the minds of our youngest learners to the idea that they could change the world. We tell them you, too, can make a difference, and it’s rewarding to watch them try.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Importance Of Design: How Poor Graphics (And Grammar) Can Threaten Safety

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is the busiest commuter train in the country. Each day, the Manhattan Transit Authority (MTA) carries 335,000 passengers to Penn Station, New York. With 124 stations and 700 miles of track, the LIRR is not only the oldest U.S. railroad still operating under its original charter since 1834, but it’s also the only line operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Given the enormous number of riders entrusting their well-being to the LIRR, you’d think safety would be a number-one concern. The LIRR’s emergency placards, however, are baffling. They are proof that poor graphics can be found anywhere. Aside from the grammar disgraces, the LIRR’s ill-designed visuals might actually harm rather than help the public’s daily commute.

The emergency instructions are posted over every train door. They are the primary guides for passengers who might encounter danger. At best, however, the signs are silly examples of why everyone needs a good editor. At worst, the placards are embarrassing safety graphics. For example, the title itself is overly wordy to grab one's attention. Shouldn't it just be labeled "Emergency Instructions," since anyone reading it is already on-board the train?

As a whole, from a design sense, the sign lacks both balance and parallelism. The icons and text fail to match each other. On the left side, each category of text is paired with a corresponding symbol as a visual cue. On the right side, the sign creator seems to have gotten tired and instead left blank spaces in the area reserved for icons.

Also, each section of the sign refers to a different type of potential emergency, such as "Evacuation," "Fire," "Medical," "Police," and "Always." Huh? How is "Always" a type of emergency? The basic rule of parallelism in drafting a graphic requires that the arrangement be logical. Here, the higher status of "Always," above "Medical" and "Police," is confusing in its primary placement. It's also jarring in the abrupt change of information type.

On the left side, one of the icons is downright unidentifiable. In the "Fire" section, a symbol clearly indicates the electrified tracks beneath the train. The other symbol appears to be a bomb with a circle and red line. "No bombs"? Compared to the adjacent text, the icon has no obvious relative. It doesn't appear to refer to emergency workers, fire extinguishers, or emergency cords. In fact, it looks like a submarine, which is even more confusing.

The only possible meaning is the emergency cord, which we are told not to activate. For reference, here is a picture of the actual "cord" (on the right), which looks nothing like the logo. Also, it is easily accessible to any passenger, even though we are told never to use it.

From a grammar perspective, it seems as though no one proofread the sign's text. For example, the section on "Evacuation" explains that, "There are four emergency windows in this car (please note locations)." Here, the writer chooses parentheses as punctuation marks to denote supplemental information. It's unclear why the instruction is in parentheses, as opposed to its own sentence, but that's a style choice.

Then, the line below reads, "In the event of an emergency, doors can be opened manually see opening instructions in vestibule." Instead of returning to parentheses, the writer now smushes additional information into the end of the main sentence, creating a textbook example of a run-on sentence. Parallelism would dictate more parentheses, but the writer instead types the words in a stream-of-consciousness style, with both phrases running confusingly together.

In the final section, the text for "Fire" tells us to, "Remain inside-tracks are electrified." Now, rather than either parentheses or a run-on sentence, the writer opts for a hyphen between the two phrases. The problem is that hyphens are used to join two words into one, such as "long-eared" or "short-lived." The new word created here is "inside-tracks." When read quickly, this is honestly a confusing sentence. The proper punctuation here would have been the dash – specifically the em dash, such as these two – which are used with spaces on either side to denote breaks in syntax.

The other side of the sign, in the quirky "Always" section, features a directive in which almost every word is inexplicably capitalized: "Use the Passenger Emergency Intercom to contact a Train Crew Member. Listen for Announcements." It's possible that "Passenger Emergency Intercom" is a proper name, and perhaps "Train Crew Member" is an official title. But "Announcements" is neither. This seems like the classic case of someone incorrectly using capitalization to denote importance.

Furthermore, in the ensuing section, the "title" for crew members is used four more times in various incarnations – none of which are capitalized.

Perhaps we're being unjust to the sign creators or nitpickingly pedantic. That's a fair criticism. But in a world where visual graphics are taking on increasing prominence and importance, it seems that an emergency sign would merit several proofreads and careful design considerations in order to generate the most effective safety measures possible.

The LIRR is already facing more serious charges of pension and disability fraud among its personnel. So maybe we should take it easy on the creators of these cringeworthy signs. For reference, here are further, extended LIRR on-board train emergency and evacuation instructions from the MTA website.
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